Perfectionism causes us problems as it increases anxiety levels and decreases self-esteem. It’s often driven by the need to feel good enough and to be accepted. We then create behaviours that over-compensate for our insecurities. Understanding what it is and why we seek to be perfect gives us the awareness to let go of the consequential self-defeating behaviours; freeing ourselves to be a little happier and more self-accepting.
What is perfectionism?
It’s characterised by a person striving to be flawlessness where they can have excessively high personal standards and be overly self-critical.
Why do we seek to be perfect?
Perfectionism is a defence mechanism to deal with uncertainty and it’s to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. It’s driven by thoughts that what we do is never good enough which is ultimately driven by feelings or underlying beliefs that we’re not good enough. These beliefs are often formed on our younger years and we can spend the rest of our lives fighting against them.
There are significant environmental and social factors that influence this too which serve to maintain our mistaken beliefs about ourselves. For example, we’re surrounded by images of perfection in the media and social media especially. For decades the images in magazines show air-brushed models who are not a representation of normal society and we’re encouraged to aspire to be like these fake images. Advertisers project ideal lifestyles where they show ‘successful’ people using their product whether it’s hair dryers, breakfast cereal or cars where people look happy and content.
In my experience, the only time I’ve ever observed functional families is in Christmas adverts and as they engulf us, trying to tell us what a happy Christmas should look like, it’s no wonder we feel inadequate when our own experience can never match this. More and more social media has an affect as many of us are guilty of portraying ourselves as perfect by only showing the best photos that are filtered to show us in the best light. As we do this, we’re fundamentally seeking the approval of our peers but inadvertently we make others feel that they don’t match up.
How does perfectionism affect mental health?
Perfectionism is self-defeating as it perpetuates negative feelings we have towards ourselves which can influence depression and anxiety as well as eating disorders, body dysmorphia and self-harm. It can affect all parts of our lives such as affecting performance in our roles whether this be in education or the professional world, it can strain relationships and exacerbate low mood to the point of making us a higher risk for suicide.
What can we do about it?
Developing realistic expectations of yourself and the demands upon you is essential to help reduce perfectionism and the anxieties that follow it. This seems a relatively simple remedy but if you’re stuck in an anxious state of uncertainty how do we develop realistic expectations?
In most of our roles we can easily feel that we can always do more. For example, we could give more to work (and work would happily let us), we could do more as a parent, exercise more, eat better ……. The list is endless which supports the view that we can never do anything perfectly. If we get close to perfection in anything, the sacrifice this requires makes our lives unbalanced. To be the best employee in the company, we may have to sacrifice time at home or parts of our personal life and some organisational cultures would encourage this pathological behaviour where staying late or sending emails at ridiculous times is revered.
As mentioned above, there are a lot of influences that seemingly actively encourage us to do more, have more, be better and work harder which can severely affect our well-being, exacerbate low mood and diminish our ability to trust ourselves and our intuition.
So, what can we do about it.
- Protect ourselves from the external influences. We can begin to consciously notice how helpful or unhelpful some of our behaviours are such as how we use social media. We can ask ourselves why we’re working late again or reading emails at 10pm. With awareness we can alter our behaviours.
- Pursue different things that make you happy. If you were to write a list of the things that you love and make you happy, how much of your time do you actually spend doing these things?
- Pursue different things that matter to you. When we do things that matter to us, it feels good and we feel happier and more content. This reduces our ability to engage in perfectionism as we feel ok or even good about ourselves.
- Avoid procrastination as this is a symptom of perfectionism. Procrastination often centres around the fear of failure so we’ll put off what we feel we need to do for fear of it going wrong which adds more pressure on us and contributes to feeling stressed.
- Set achievable goals for yourself. Being more consciously defined in what is good and ok can help us reduce distorted thoughts and behaviour patterns of doing too much.
- Focus on what’s going well. This is essential for our well-being. We’re hard-wired as humans to notice threat hence we notice the negatives so much more. We have to be a bit more conscious to notice what’s going well and when we do, we feel better. Life is generally ok to good and even when it’s not, we cope with it.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. You’re not perfect and you can make mistakes. If we seek to be perfect to gain approval, it actually creates the opposite. People love us for our imperfections and limitations (which is hard to accept sometimes).
- Accept that you’re good enough; you always have been and always will be. You seek to be a good person and live with good intention, so you have the right to feel good enough. This is not to say you won’t make mistakes or even do bad things. The shadow side of us can easily come out when we feel threatened where we can display anger, envy, jealousy, self-pity etc which is also all part of being human. You’re unique as there’s never been anyone exactly like you and never will be so you can’t be compared to others. Practising self-compassion and kindness can help with this such as treating yourself as you do someone you deeply care for.
I hope you’ve found this article to be helpful and thought provoking and please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Wishing you a lovely day
Research Links –